Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the category “France”

Born to Be Happy

The story of a remarkable woman

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My Aunt Billy, my guru of optimism, told me not long ago that she had been “a little down lately.” Dr. Miroslava Biljana Nikitovitch-Winer, or Billy for short, has always been my idol, a woman who lived like a true feminist long before that term became pejorative. She has had a career as a research scientist, as a medical school professor and as chair of the University of Kentucky’s Anatomy and Neurobiology departments. After retirement, she became an accomplished potter and sculptor. She is the mother of two successful children, the grandmother of two boys and two girls, and an aunt and great-aunt who is always available to talk, to tell a funny story, or to listen and offer encouragement. During my darkest times, it was Billy who comforted me, Billy who advised me, Billy who helped me get up and start over when all I wanted to do was disappear.

“Depression is my territory,” I said to her. “You are not allowed there.”

Billy rarely complains or feels sorry for herself. Even now, at 87, she is not down because of her own aches and pains. She is sad because Al, her beloved husband of sixty years, is slowly declining. And she, a woman of action, can do nothing about it.

I am sure the daily travails of a weakening body do bother her. She always says, “Aging is not for sissies.” But to a woman of such strength and accomplishment, who fled from Yugoslavia after World War II and overcame the barriers of war, sex, culture, and language to rise to the top of her field, what has always been of utmost importance is her husband, her family, her many friends, and the countless students whom she has taught and nurtured through the years. She needed no near-death experience to know that what matters most in life is love.

As the essence of the man she loves dissolves a little more each day, Billy can no longer keep the demons of depression at bay, the demons she has fended off, usually with success, in the face of obstacles that would have felled a lesser soul.IMG_0701

In 1937, a ten-year-old Biljana stared at the ceiling of her room in Skoplje, Macedonia, and wondered when her parents would let her get up. It had been almost three months of lying on a wooden board without so much as a pillow, three long months of no school, no play, no exercise. She read on her back, wrote on her back, ate and drank on her back. The wooden board pressed into her flesh and her slack muscles, reminding her that her body was no longer her own. She was a guinea pig in an experiment suggested by a quack and embraced by her father, a treatment without any scientific proof of success, a torture meant to prevent a suspected curvature of her spine.

When the three months were up, my Aunt Billy was so weak she could hardly stand up. Her spinal curvature was now pronounced, and the doctor ordered another three months of plank rest, which she endured, which condemned her to an even worse back. Unbelievably, her father then agreed with the doctor that still another three months would be necessary.

After nine months of obedient suffering, Billy finally rebelled.

But she would never be the same. She was no longer the lively, confident girl with the big green eyes who loved to laugh and tell stories. She was no longer the girl with the strong slim body who loved to put on a bathing suit and go swimming with her friends. She was now the girl with the crooked back, withdrawn and self-conscious, hiding her body from the world. Her father called her chubby and her mother called her Quasimodo. She was damaged, and she knew it.

Yet despite the blow to her physical confidence and the pain she would endure every day of her life, her spirit remained unscathed. Billy has never let her back define or limit her. She has never let any obstacle stop her from achieving her dream of studying medicine and becoming a research scientist in America. “Serbs,” she told me when we were working on her autobiography, “were born to be happy.” No, I thought, you were born to be happy because optimism runs through your veins as surely as it drains from mine.

Born in Kraljevo in 1927, Biljana came into a family of male chauvinists so entrenched in their supposed superiority that her grandfather would summon his wife to run down a steep hill on a hot afternoon and pour him a glass of water. The pitcher stood on a table just inches from where he was napping in the shade of his favorite tree. Another time, Billy heard a neighbor of her grandfather’s in the village of Vranici say he had no children. Then who was the little girl she played with? Her parents explained that only boys counted as children. Still later, she learned that pre-arranged marriages were customary in the rural villages of Serbia, and that the future husband had the right to test a girl’s bedroom skills before marriage. If rejected, the girl faced a bleak future indeed. No wonder Billy became a crusader for equality and women’s rights.

When asked about her childhood, Billy will say it was idyllic, for the most part. She chooses to remember a garden filled with the fragrance of freshly watered flowers and the sound of a street merchant calling out “kiselo, veselo” as he peddled kaymak, a kind of sour cream she loved. But what about Flokitsa, the little dog she and her brother adored? Didn’t her father give it away without telling them because he was horrified when a silly neighbor boy licked the hapless creature’s groin? Or their pet lamb that suddenly appeared on the Easter table? Or the time her mother packed food in red scarves tied to sticks, hobo style, then told them to leave, locked the garden gate and left them crying outside for what felt like forever? Billy doesn’t even remember what they had done that was so wrong. I guess if you are born to be happy, you don’t hold on to bad memories.

Billy especially loved Skoplje, where her family moved when she was five to be close to the district her father represented in the Yugoslav Parliament, even though he spent most of his time in Belgrade. With her mother and brother and friends, they had parties and picnics in the mountains. Orthodox by faith, they nevertheless celebrated holidays with both Muslims and Catholics. In the summer, the scent of cevapcici, small oblong meatballs, half lamb, half beef, cooked on open fires, wafted through the streets. They had a live-in French nanny, Mademoiselle Louise, who taught the children to speak French and have good table manners. Billy remembers how happy they were, especially her mother when her domineering husband was away.

Of course, there was the back incident, and the time her brother broke her nose when they were playing cowboys and Indians, and the time a cruel teacher told her that her official name was Miroslava, not Biljana, something her parents had neglected to reveal. But good times have always outweighed bad times for Billy, at least until now.Scan 63

Back in Belgrade after her father became Minister of Agriculture, Billy, now a young girl of fourteen and tall for her age, awoke to an eerie quiet. It was March 28th, 1941. Suddenly, a terrible noise shook the house and German bombs plummeted from the sky. Everyone ran to a neighbor’s basement and waited in the dark for the bombing to stop. The night felt interminable to Billy, who coughed uncontrollably due to the dust, the fear and the lack of water. Suddenly, a hard blast of wind accompanied by a deafening bang shook the ground. Then silence. And more silence. When they dared climb out into the light, they saw a huge hole in the street right next to the house where they had been hiding. Smoke rose in the distance and buildings and homes as far as Billy could see looked like metal carcasses, yet the apartment building her family lived in was still standing.

Chaos reigned under German rule. Because there was no food, her mother would sneak out to the countryside to forage for potatoes and vegetables. No one was allowed out after 10pm, and the schools served as army barracks.

First Billy’s beloved German tutor disappeared. Then her best high school friend showed up with a big yellow star on her sleeve. Since Jews were forbidden to walk on the sidewalk, Billy walked with her in the gutter. After a few weeks she, too, disappeared.

In 1943 the Allies started bombing Belgrade, and the family fled to a nearby village for safety. Billy remembers watching the bombs tumble from the sky, shining in the sun like silver bullets, and wondering which part of Belgrade they would destroy next.

When the Germans retreated and the war finally ended, everyone expected the Americans to come to the rescue of Belgrade. Instead, in February of 1945, Europe was divided at the Yalta Conference, and the Russians arrived as the so-called liberators of Yugoslavia.

Barely 18, Billy was now a prisoner of the Russian occupation, and another reign of terror began as Communism took hold, with no effort by the Allies to help. Her father fled in the night, afraid for his life, and her brother Pavlé was immediately drafted into Tito’s Communist army. Because the universities admitted only the children of members of the Communist Party, Billy’s education came to a standstill.

At midnight on a cool October day, a young woman in a borrowed khaki uniform and her brother in his Communist army uniform jumped on a moving train with Mita, the man who had provided them with phony papers and promised to help them escape to Italy. In Zagreb, they boarded another train, a cattle car that stank of dung and urine, and, standing the whole way, arrived in Riyeka in Istria. Across the river was Italy.

Between hell and freedom stood a dozen checkpoints. Mita talked his way through all of them, and when they passed through the last American checkpoint into Trieste, where their father was waiting, they were overwhelmed with joy and gratitude.

Billy and Pavlé traveled to Milan with their father, who gave them 1,000 lire, then left them alone while he went on to Paris. He assured them that he had a friend in Nervi who would help them out. The friend did not. Instead, he sent them to a hotel without any dinner. Starved after a day without eating, they dined at the hotel, not realizing how expensive it would be, and managed to spend almost half of their money. Desperate, they then rented a cheap room with a shared bathroom in a flat above a movie theater, where Billy would fall asleep to the sound of Gary Cooper shouting through the floorboards. She didn’t mind because by then she had already fallen in love with anything American. In her heart, she knew that some day destiny would take her to the United States.

By the time their father sent them train tickets, Billy and Pavlé were surviving on oranges stolen from a nearby orchard. In Paris, they immediately enrolled at the Sorbonne University, which was overflowing with students from anywhere and everywhere, all eager for the educations World War II had postponed. At the end of the year, both passed their exams, and Billy moved on to medical school.

But not without trauma. At twenty, she endured a painful, botched operation to put a bone from her tibia along her vertebral column. Instead of straightening her spine, the procedure resulted in a greater curvature, and she lost five inches in height.

Even that could not deter my Aunt Billy. She found work as a receptionist in the American house at the Sorbonne and made friends with the fun-loving students, most of them studying “art” or “culture.” She loved the Americans because, she said, they, too, were born to be happy.

After she finished medical school, the father of one of her American friends sponsored her to come to the United States. She was the first in her family to leave. It was the middle of winter, and the ship, crowded with emigrants, rolled through storm after storm. She was alone, with no papers and no passport, and she was horribly seasick. When she saw the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline after two long weeks at sea, she cried.

Settling in New York, Billy found a job as a research assistant for the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. She fed and tested mice for various diseases, not a very glamorous job, but one that allowed her to pay her own way, with money left over for buying clothes and enjoying the city. Then she heard about a new program at Harvard University. She applied, oblivious of what Harvard represented in American education, and was accepted with a full scholarship from Radio Free Europe.

It was at Harvard that Billy met a fellow medical researcher, Dr. Alfred Winer, the man she was to marry. He was Jewish, and his Bostonian family disapproved of his choice of a wife. They married anyway, in the backyard of her brother’s house in New Jersey. By now, Pavlé and his family as well as their parents had found sponsors and settled in the United States. She and Al honeymooned in Ocean City before returning to Duke University, where Al had transferred. Billy followed him and graduated with a PhD in anatomy and neurobiology.

Post-graduation, Billy stayed at Duke to do research in a new field called neuro-endocrinology. She did research on rats, fashioning her own curved tool from the metal strips used to close boxes. With that tiny tool, she was able to lift a rat’s brain, cut the stalk that attaches the pituitary gland to the brain, and remove the pituitary all in one piece. She then grafted the gland under the rat’s kidney capsule, where it became re-vascularized. Her experiments led to her discovery of how the brain stimulates the pituitary gland to release the LH hormone that results in ovulation.

Billy and Al continued their research in Sweden and London. They had two children, Nikola and Alexandra. They were then recruited to join the founding faculty of the University of Kentucky Medical School in Lexington. For more than three decades, Billy taught anatomy and Al biochemistry while they both continued to do research in their fields.

After retiring, Billy took up pottery, which she had always wanted to do. She brought the same passion to art as she had to medical research, taking courses at the University and workshops with professional sculptors. She even installed her own kiln and pottery studio in Lexington, where she still loves creating pots, vases, sculptures and other objects.

Billy has survived breast cancer, two shoulder operations, a knee replacement, breathing problems and constant back pain. Yet she is always impeccably coiffed and dressed, elegant even under duress. When I ask her how she is, she jokes, “Fine, or would you prefer an organ recital?”

Through the good times and the bad, Billy’s gentle, loving husband has stood quietly behind her, giving her strength, letting her shine, and expecting nothing in return.

Perhaps Billy was born to be happy. But perhaps it is Al who has allowed that happiness to flow the way it has through their years together. Now the Al she knew and loved is fading away as she watches. Yet no matter how down she feels, I am sure that she never lets him see her cry. No, she smiles lovingly and continues to project the happiness that will comfort him, even though that happiness sometimes eludes her. That’s what people who were born to be happy do.IMG_0700

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Requiem for My Brother George

George

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I look out at these gentle French hills,
The silver greens you thought so lovely,
The cloudless blue sky framed by waves of vine,
The dark dense patches of trees
In patterns of repose,
So still this morning,
As you are in your coffin, George,
My beloved brother.

No longer will you see the streams and rivers
That enlivened you, nor feel the sacred space
Where you and sky and water joined,
Where you found peace in a heart
Agitated by ancient loss, a heart
Capable of selfless love
Only for the trees and rivers and oceans
You fought hard to protect.

I see you standing by a Colorado stream,
Fishing rod in hand, casting
As if in prayer,
Casting for joy, casting for freedom,
Casting for the stillness that came
With the roar of water rushing over rocks,
Rocks you collected
Like tokens of eternity.

The trees soothed your soul
As you strode thigh-deep into streams and rivers,
From Russia to Canada,
From New York to California,
And here, in Gironde, where once upon a time,
The grandfather you loved, who loved you as his one true son,
Placed a bamboo pole in your small hand,
And taught you how to fish.

Side by side you stood in silence
On the muddy banks of the Garonne,
Until your pole wobbled and you raised it
In triumph, a small silver fish dangling in the air.
How powerful you must have felt,
How complete, how proud,
When your Papi
Smiled and hugged and praised you.

You never forgot that joy.
It was the one true thing that gave meaning to your life,
That led you and sustained you.
But the rest, oh, the rest, how sad you were,
Beneath those water-green eyes,
Eyes the color of the Garonne
When the sun slants across
Its wide, sullen surface.

That river frightened me,
But not you.
It was as though you had risen from it,
Born from its restless tides,
Sometimes silent, sometimes agitated,
Sometimes as angry as its currents when storms
Ruffled its surface,
Like the surface of your life.

We saw only the surface.
What lay beneath? What depths of sorrow,
What pools of unrequited love
Hiding from the violence of currents
You could not control?
Your eyes, once full of emotion,
Grew dull as your mind dissolved
Into the murky present.

Emptied of your essence, wounded by disease,
You saw only terror,
The terror of reality slipping away,
Thought by broken thought,
The terror of pain and confusion and helplessness,
The terror of memory battered
As if flung into a raging river,
Engulfed by useless anger.

In the end, your eyes saw nothing at all.
They closed, and you slept,
Without pain or desire,
Accepting the abyss until, finally,
Death set you free.
And all that remained were your ravaged bones,
Your skin stretched paper-thin over wasted flesh.
Today, we will burn you.

Once your face was plump
With the excess of your desires,
For food, for drink, for money, for clothes,
For possessions so numerous that you collapsed under the weight,
Lost like a little boy in the rubble of an unkempt life,
With a measureless need for love that no one and nothing could fill,
An emptiness you felt but never understood,
And never tried to heal.

I will remember another you,
The man of rivers and forests,
The lover of beauty in all of its guises,
The young soul who laughed and danced,
Who loved art and music and books,
Who spoke four languages with ease,
The man who cherished cats and children,
The brother who loved me.

You wanted chocolate, always chocolate.
In the end, your sister Vesna fed you piece by piece,
Watching you smile as chocolate melted in your mouth.
Chocolate was the vestige of your senses, the final pleasure,
The last rite offered by someone who loved you,
Because we did love you, my lost, lonely brother.
We will always love you,
Our beloved brother George.

The Ripple of Random Kindness: A Story About my Father, Pavlé Nikitovich

The Ripple of Random Kindness: A Story About my Father, Pavlé Nikitovich.

The Ripple of Random Kindness: A Story About my Father, Pavlé Nikitovich

 

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Many years ago, Pavlé Nikitovich, my father, saved four Frenchman he had never met before from a Russian death squad. It was a random act of kindness, perhaps a foolhardy act of heroism, but an act that rippled down through time and saved generations of unborn children.

 

As World War II drew to a close, the Soviets invaded Yugoslavia, which had already endured three years of brutal German occupation. After a two-day battle, the Soviets took Belgrade and soon drafted all able-bodied Yugoslav men into the Communist army. Just nineteen, my father walked the docks of Belgrade’s port on the Danube with the other recruits and watched as the Soviets forced the Germans, now prisoners-of-war, to unload Russian ships arriving from the Black Sea.

 

Sometimes the Soviet soldiers would pass around a bottle of vodka and play a macabre little game. They would force the German prisoners to walk up the plank to one of the ships while they took turns shooting. The officers cheered when one of them managed to hit a German in the head on his first try. As the body hit the water, the soldiers would laugh and toast the winner with another shot of vodka.

 

When a new batch of prisoners arrived, the Russian Communists would select the prisoners who had been there the longest and send them off to the firing squad in order to make room for their replacements.

 

My father had already witnessed what happened to German prisoners-of-war. On the day the Soviets marched into Belgrade, he watched from the window of his family’s apartment as more than 300 vanquished Germans walked up to a table where a Soviet soldier armed with a Kalashnikov stood above them and shot them one-by-one through the head. When the pile of dead bodies grew too big, the Russians would move the table. The Communist soldiers, wearing red armbands, then ordered a dozen young local men, including my father, to pick up the dead bodies and throw them into trenches in front of the church. In groups of four, they lifted the cadavers by the arms and legs and dumped them into the trenches, ignoring the brains spilling from shattered skulls and the blood gushing onto their hands and shoes.

 

But what my father remembered most clearly were the pictures and letters sliding from the left-side pockets of the dead soldiers’ uniforms when the bodies bounced and shifted, mementos placed on their hearts to remind them of love and give them courage as they bravely walked to their deaths. My father understood then that the German soldiers were just young men like him, obeying the orders of one dictator only to be murdered by the orders of another. There were no longer good guys and bad guys in those confusing post-war days, merely one horror following another.

 

It was before a scheduled execution day in October of 1944 that a young man in a German uniform approached my father and asked him if he spoke French. Why he asked Pavlé and not one of the other Yugoslav guards is a mystery. Perhaps he had tried others only to receive a blank stare in response. In any case, this was his lucky day. My father spoke fluent French.

 

Pavlé listened as the man, Pierre Ambiehl, explained that he and his three buddies were French, not German, and had been drafted into the German army after the Nazis occupied and annexed the French province of Alsace. Taken prisoners by the Soviets, they ended up on the docks of Belgrade awaiting death by firing squad. Since none of them spoke Russian, they had no way of telling the Soviets they were French, and thus allies, not enemies. They were scheduled to die the very next day, and Pierre pleaded for Pavlé to help them.

 

Vowing to try, my father went to a Russian soldier he had befriended and told him about the Frenchmen’s plight. The Russian said that since the four had fought with the Germans against his countrymen, they deserved to die. But Pavlé somehow managed to persuade him to ask his Soviet superiors to delay their execution by a few days.

 

Then he did what only the young, the fearless and arguably the foolish would do. He snuck out of the military zone with the French identity cards of all four men and walked to the French embassy, where General Charles de Gaulle had established a delegation.

 

The next morning, two French officials came to the port with all the necessary documents to free the Frenchmen. Right before they left, one of the embassy envoys had the foresight to take a photo of the four liberated friends flanking their hero, my father, a handsome young man with a dark mustache and a hesitant smile.

 

Pierre Ambiehl kept that photo for sixty-five years, knowing only the name of the young man in the middle, Pavlé Nikitovich. Now 84, Pierre asked his son André if he would help him fulfill his dream: to find the hero who had saved his life so he could thank him.

 

As serendipity would have it, André had worked at the Peugeot factory in Alsace for many years alongside his Serbian friend, Stanko Yotsitch, who subsequently moved back to Serbia. He asked Yotsitch to help him in his search. Yotstich told the story to journalist Mirko Prelevitch, who then wrote about it in Belgrade’s “Novosti” newspaper, asking readers to contact him if they knew what had happened to Pavlé Nikitovich, the man in the photograph.

 

Meanwhile, a few months after the Frenchmen were freed, my father and his sister managed to obtain fake documents and escape, first to Italy, then to France, and eventually to the United States. After a few false leads, and a little help from Google, Prelevitch finally found a Paul Nikitovich living in Englewood, Colorado. When my father received Prelevitch’s call and heard the story, he was stunned. While Pierre Ambiehl had lived with the memory his whole life, my father had forgotten the incident until that moment. His brave and generous gesture had truly been a random act of kindness, the kind that changes lives forever, even though at the time it had not registered as heroism to a young man who was merely following his human instinct to help those in need.

 

The story doesn’t end there. André Ambiehl invited my father to come visit the family in Alsace. He flew to France, and on October 27, 2010, attended a special ceremony for World War II veterans in Ensisiem, Alsace. Pavlé Nikitovich and Pierre Ambiehl were the guests of honor, two men whose destinies had crossed decades before and sent ripples into a future that would not have been possible otherwise.

 

My father recently celebrated his 89th birthday. André and his wife have visited him in Colorado several times, and he speaks to them and Pierre often. By choosing to help a stranger, Pavlé Nikitovich left a legacy of life, love, respect and gratitude. And he did it neither for personal gain nor to show off nor to curry favor with his captors. He did it because he is just that kind of man.

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Living Life in the Moment, Through Chocolate-Tinted Glasses

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February 19th is my brother George’s birthday. I can see him in the group room of his home in France. He is numb, clueless, forever waiting for nothing. His Alzheimer’s disease has made me question the supposed virtue of living in the moment, as George now lives, day after day, instant after instant. Tomorrow is his 64th birthday, and what is his greatest pleasure? Chocolate.

He does not know that on February 18th, his son had a baby boy. George probably doesn’t remember that he has a son. He doesn’t remember me. But he most definitely remembers chocolate.

Every other week or so, my sister, Vesna, goes to visit him in the memory-care home he now lives in, a facility in Southwest France that we were lucky to find given the outrageous cost of homes in the United States. And every time she visits, she brings him chocolate.

George remembers no one and nothing, but his eyes light up and he smiles when Vesna offers him chocolate.  For him, pleasure has narrowed its focus to what he can hear and what he can taste. He loves any kind of music, and he loves chocolate.

You may have indulged in chocolate, maybe on Valentine’s Day, maybe today or every day, savoring its intensity and its gift of subtle satisfaction. After all, very few people dislike chocolate. It dates back to Mesoamerica, but it was Cortez who brought it back to Spain, and it was the Europeans who sweetened it and made it a fashionable drink in the 17th century. The Mayans and Aztecs, on the other hand, thought the cacao bean was sacred, maybe even divine. They used it in many of their rituals of birth, marriage and death.

We use chocolate to make ourselves feel happier. Some say it has great health properties. Researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego even found that it contains substances that have similar effects on the brain as marijuana. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I do know that chocolate addiction is common in both men and women. A high is a high is a high. And what’s wrong with that?

Because when nothing is left, no memory, no dignity, no independence, no freedom, no nothing, chocolate is still there. Chocolate brings joy to George as nothing else does. Maybe even more than Madonna and Lady Gaga do. Yet the true sadness remains: if he could only remember, he would rejoice that his first grandson was born just a day before his own birthday.

Who knows what similarities the little boy will have with his grandfather. Will he love to fish? Will he have a talent for languages? And who knows if he will ever know his larger family, or who his grandfather or great-grandfather were, or that those connected to him would love a chance to hold him and love him. Because that is what family is about: unconditional love. Who knows if that will ever happen for him?

My sister, Vesna, is a talented painter and a kind, kind person. In her latest portrait of George, she captures the emptiness, the layers of pain, and the simple joy of being alive in the moment despite the terror of nothingness. She captures the little smile he must proffer when he is given chocolate.  No, our brother is no longer the brother we knew. But he is still there, still breathing, still smiling.

 Vesna brings George chocolate, and he smiles. He had a pretty good life, all in all, and we all wish he could still be the person he was. But he can’t.  If he knew he was a grandfather, he would rejoice. Maybe he wouldn’t be the greatest grandfather, but he would love his grandson, just as his grandfathers loved him, just the way he loved and praised his daughter, just the way he loved and praised his estranged son, the son he tried so hard to bond with, yet never could.  George never learned how to show his love, but he did love.

And George always loved chocolate. In his last semi-independent days in Westchester County, New York, I would find chocolate and candies stashed everywhere in his apartment. I never called him on it, even though he has diabetes. After all, doesn’t everyone have the right to one last pleasure, one last addiction?

Maybe the Aztecs were right to view chocolate as a rite of passage, as a communion with eternity, be it life or death. George doesn’t have much life left in him, but chocolate still makes him smile. And that is enough for my sister.  And that is enough for me. But it is so sad that he will never know that he has a grandson, and never be able to rejoice in that milestone of life. That is the curse of Alzheimer’s.

I wish I could be there tomorrow and see the joy in George’s face as he tastes each morsel of bar or candy or cookie on his birthday. I wish I could be there sharing the pleasure with him.  In my depressed moments, I wonder why he is still alive. But in my up phase, I think how grateful I am for my beautiful, compassionate sister and her unconditional love for our brother George, my sister, who can see his essence and his soul while feeding him chocolate. And I must admit, I feel guilty not to be with the brother I love so much, through thick and thin, through ill and crazy, after so many years of trying. The distance is devastating, the guilt, immense.

A few weeks ago, my sister painted her latest picture of our brother George. He is smiling a tiny bit, maybe because she has just brought him chocolate. I can only imagine the big smile he would have if he knew he had a grandson. Even if he remembered it just for a moment.

Beautiful Dancer

Scan 3Passion is a gift, one that lends grace and meaning to life. It doesn’t matter what someone has a true passion for — art, dance, music, writing, science, sports, charity, politics, or even another person – it is the passion itself that transforms a journey into a quest.

Too impatient to wait for her due date, my sister, Vesna, arrived suddenly and full of passion in the back seat of a patrol car, summoned in panic by our mother. “Please don’t do this to me, lady,” the officer begged. “Please wait!”

Everything Vesna did as a child was intense, focused and all consuming. She didn’t have bad dreams, she had nightmares. She didn’t play with dolls, she chopped off their hair and redid their wardrobes with our cut-up curtains. She didn’t walk, she ran and twirled and jumped, a graceful sprite, who, if she fell, got up again with bleeding knees and kept right on going.

When she discovered ballet, her passion blossomed into an obsession. After school, she would head straight to ballet class. On days without a scheduled class, she would practice in our shared bedroom in her satiny pink toe-shoes, lifting a leg to her ear or balancing on one foot with the other foot pointing behind her, straight up to the sky. While I was going out with boys and getting into trouble on weekends, Vesna was taking the bus to New York City for more and more advanced classes. At night, she would do her homework and wash her tights no matter how tired she was.

I liked to watch my sister sleep: the perfect pale skin, the full lips, the lids of her big brown eyes trembling in dream. Her light brown hair, pulled in a tight bun during the day, flowed in waves around her long neck and thin shoulders. She was so very beautiful.

Our father made her attend Barnard College, even though by then she was apprenticing with American Ballet Theatre. She made it through a year before she stood up to him and declared, “I only want to dance.” College was holding her back from her true passion.

At night, Vesna worked as a waitress. An armed robber once broke into the restaurant and locked all the employees in the freezer. “Weren’t you scared?” I asked her. “No,” she said with utmost sincerity, “I was too worried that I wouldn’t have time to wash my tights!”Scan 2

Her passion for dance led to a position with the Hamburg Opera Ballet under John Neumeier, whom she revered. She moved to Germany and toured with the company, but her body, always frail and prone to injury, began to betray her. For a year, she wore a back brace when she wasn’t on stage. She continued to dance no matter how severe the pain until, one sad day, she realized she no longer could. She was not yet thirty.

Married and settled for good in Hamburg, Vesna turned to Pilates, which she had discovered to be an antidote to the injuries common to dancers. She flew back to New York and trained with the formidable Romana Kryzanowska, successor to Joseph Pilates himself. Vesna’s Pilates studio, Studio fur Korper Training, was the first one in Hamburg. In the mornings, she would get on her bicycle, rain or shine, with her brown Labrador alongside, and ride to work with a smile on her face. She loved helping others get well, sometimes at her own detriment, lifting and crouching and bending and adjusting bodies for hours on end.

Vesna also became an avid sailor. She and her husband sailed the Baltic Sea in their boat, cruising around the islands of Denmark every summer. But just knowing how to sail wasn’t good enough for her. She had to prove herself and earn her captain’s license, too. After her son grew too big to be safely restrained while sailing, they sold their boat and bought a vacation home in Southwestern France.

Although she loved Pilates and sailing, nothing could replace her passion for dance. Nothing, that is, until she discovered dressage, the art of dancing on a horse. Vesna trained every day until she was skilled enough to compete. She bought one horse, then another, and drove to the country early in the mornings, sometimes in freezing rain or snow, to ride them and care for them.

I saw Vesna compete only once. In her black top hat and fitted jacket, her back straight and her lovely face lifted, she looked so graceful and composed, so calm and connected, that tears filled my eyes. My beautiful sister was dancing again.

The back problems that had plagued her earlier grew more and more painful until doctors told her the only solution was to insert a metal rod along her lower spine to hold the vertebrae in place. Then her right leg began to hurt. When I saw her in 1997, she shuffled forward in tiny steps, smiling through the pain. A hip replacement followed. Then another.

Still, Vesna kept riding, fearless and determined. When her husband retired, they took the horses and moved to their house in France, where she had installed a stable and a state-of-the-art riding ring. She hired no one to help her, hauling hay, cleaning the stables and exercising her horses every day. One day last month, during a dressage maneuver, her horse balked and she fell hard, harder than she had ever fallen before.

Vesna said she cried out for help but no one heard her. After what felt like forever to her, she crawled back to her horse, managed to get on, and rode back to the stable. I asked her why. “Because,” she said, “If you don’t get back on right away, you’ll be too afraid to ever ride again.”

Four weeks went by. Doctors said not to worry, that her leg couldn’t be broken if she could still walk on it. They obviously did not know her… She flew to Germany for a reunion of the Hamburg Opera Ballet. In ever-mounting pain, she finally went for an x-ray. Her right leg was broken clear through the thighbone, just two inches above where her implant ended. She would have to have another hip replacement.

On crutches, Vesna attended the anniversary performance of the Hamburg Opera Ballet just days before her operation. John Neumeier came over to chat with her at the after-party. “You always told me I needed to dance more with my legs than my heart,” she reminded him. “Now I have nothing left but my heart.”

And that heart, full of passion and determination, will carry her through her recovery and back to her beloved horses. No matter what anyone tells her. No matter what the risk. No matter how long it takes.IMG_1929

French Lessons

Scan 10He had been a difficult man, my grandfather, or so my mother and grandmother had always told me when they recalled the many days the two of them had spent alone while he disappeared from dawn until dinner to hunt or fish in his beloved Gironde countryside. I called him Papi, and when at nine I was sent back to France for a year, I did not find him difficult to love. The difficulty, I thought then, was proving myself worthy of his love, and it was only much later that I understood what Mami had gone through, living with a man who would never change a single habit to accommodate woman, child or society.
My grandparents were to meet me when La Covadonga, a rusty Spanish freighter my parents had been misled into believing was a safe luxury liner, docked in Bilbao, Spain, after twelve days at sea. Since I had traveled alone save for a promiscuous French chaperone, who never slept in the cabin or ate with me or watched me at all, Papi had agreed to fetch me by car, but he had lost his nerve at the Spanish border, and Mami had come the rest of the way by train. He was, she told me fretfully, an impossible, stubborn man. Could I imagine, she asked, that the one time he had gone to Paris with her and my mother, he left the very next day because he claimed hotels made him sick?
What I could imagine, after just a few days in France, was why he would not want to leave a perfect place. Never had I had a garden from which to pick strawberries, or cornfields in which to play hide-and-seek, or doves and rabbits to feed.
With great patience but stern discipline, Papi set out to teach me everything I didn’t know, and that, he said, was a lot. Every afternoon that summer, he would close the dining-room shutters, and, in cool semi-darkness, I would study reading, writing and recitation with him. He had been a teacher all his life, as had Mami, and he spoke in a loud, clear voice, enunciating every syllable and defining each difficult word. My American accent irritated him even more than my American ignorance, especially since my first language had been French. He made me repeat sentences, often tongue-twisters, endlessly, and memorize and recite all of his favorite fables by La Fontaine. I imitated his rolling Southern intonations so assiduously that to this day, I speak French with the inelegant and provincial “accent du Midi.”
Since Papi scorned those who slept late, I learned to wake up by seven. He was up at six, working in his garden before it was too hot, and I would run down the sloped garden path to see him after I had gulped down my café au lait. When I kissed him, his cheeks were rough and fresh with the scent of lemony cologne and dew.
In those days, Papi kept two gardens, one in La Réole, the small town we lived in, and one in Barie, Mami’s childhood home in the country, where we often spent weekends. There, he had plum, pear, apple and apricot trees. He kept bees, too, handling the hives with his bare hands, and he made me swallow a teaspoon of honey, which I hated as a child, every morning, for long life and health.
In one of Barie’s many attic rooms, Papi kept pigeons trained as tree decoys for hunting palombes, the wild pigeons that flew up from the Pyrenees every fall. He and his friends built elaborate fern tunnels and hunting cabins in the woods and spent every autumn day waiting for the birds to alight in the specially cleared trees, a wait that would prolong itself as both the woods and the hapless birds dwindled over the years.
When it wasn’t hunting season, it was fishing season, a time of lazy late afternoons by the Garonne river, where, if I was allowed to tag along, I had to be perfectly quiet amongst the flies and tickling weeds and smells of cow dung and rotting fruit, my small bamboo pole in hand, praying with fervent concentration to catch a fish and prove my worth.
For Papi was my hero, unlike anyone I had ever met in America. A short man, he appeared tall because he was compact, trim and strong. He preferred old comfortable clothes, a beret, worn boots and baggy brown pants, and he insisted on using the same soap to wash, shave and shampoo.
One night, as I lay under a lofty white eiderdown beneath a distant ceiling, I heard him telling Mami that I looked more like my father than did my sister and brothers. Since he had never forgiven my Yugoslav father for taking away his only child and for being foreign and dark-eyed and for eating delicately and sleeping late, I took his comment as a sign of disfavor. To win his approval, I tried to be the perfect student, and I was, except when it came to the violin, the instrument he played so well. Having failed within a month to sense any progress in my playing, he declared, wrongly, that I was tone-deaf, just like my mother and grandmother, and he took back the tiny violin he had given me.
Whenever we ate, Papi observed everything I did and commented, often unkindly. His eyes were very round, nut-brown and deep-set, and his mouth, tightly modeled, was quick to move. “You must take a bite of bread after every morsel of meat and salad,” he would say. “You must not trim the fat off your meat. It reminds me of your father picking the fat out of his salami.” He complained that Mami ate like a bird and was far too skinny, not like she was when he married her.
I learned to eat the way he ate, the French way, and I would flush with pride if he said I had eaten well: chewing the little bones of the birds he roasted in the fireplace, or crunching the heads and skeletons of fried “ablettes,” the tiny fish he caught in quantity in the springtime.
Once, I displeased Papi by refusing to finish my meal. I had choked on my lunch after learning it was my pet rabbit, Annie, my Easter present, butchered and baked without my knowledge or consent. As a Frenchman, he believed that such pets were meant to be eaten when full-grown, and that I should have learned that by now. Though he seemed contrite afterwards, and tried to comfort me by playing a violin jig in front of my locked door, he did not hesitate a few weeks later to dispatch my two pet ducks.
In school, Papi expected me to be first, and after a dismal and difficult start as fourteenth, I studied my way to third, second and finally first. He was proud of me, he said, very proud.
Then summer came, and my mother arrived with my brothers and sister, and Papi no longer bothered to scold me or even correct me. My French lessons had ended.

The year after we got married, I took my now ex-husband to France to meet my grandparents. I had been there several times since that childhood year and had noticed Papi’s gruffness turning to rancor, his dislike of socializing turning to misanthropy. He drove less and less. He abandoned the garden and orchards of Barie. He cursed the modern world, the church, the government, crime and industry, and in his escalating stinginess, begrudged every franc Mami spent on what he called “frivolities.” He had become an old man, more difficult than ever, a man afraid of death and shattered by the indecencies of a weakening mind and body.
Never sensitive to anyone’s feelings, Papi now demanded sensitivity to his. One day, Mami took us to Bordeaux by train, and we arrived a little later than planned. We found Papi at the window, cradling his round head in his hands, crying. “He’s always afraid I won’t come back,” Mami said.
When he forgot something, Papi would sit at the kitchen table and rub his temples with his calloused thumbs, until he was so frustrated that he would shout, “What did I go out to do, anyway?”
The day we left La Réole was a warm September morning, soft with the silvery light of Gironde. From the train station, we could see the wide Garonne river, twisting, brown and treacherous, through the rich valley of small farms, the land rising gently into hills of green and purple vineyards and patches of just-fading trees. Large cranes bordered one side of the river, and Papi told us they were dredging all the gravel, making the river a deathtrap of whirlpools. He pointed to other factories along the banks and said they had killed all the fish; it was no use fishing any more. He repeated how much he hated the modern world — he couldn’t understand why it destroyed everything. As for hunting, it had become a farce, the way they fattened up the partridges and released them for slaughter by weekend amateurs.
Everything had changed, he said, everything but him.

In Praise of Love, a French Mother and Glorious Food

Scan 7

Today, January 6th, was my mother’s birthday. Her name was Gisèle, but those close to her called her Gigi. I won’t say how old she would have been in honor of one of her Frenchwoman’s commandments: Thou shalt not tell thy age. The goal was to stay looking and acting young, not moaning and groaning about how old you were. Plus, she said, it was nobody’s business: if you looked too good for your age, people wondered what you had done; if you looked really bad, people felt sorry for you.

Until the very end, when she seemed to shrink and crumble in pain, my mother looked beautiful and had a youthful spirit that brought joy to everyone around her.

One of the many memories that keep Gigi alive for me is of her flitting around the kitchen, wooden spoon in hand, an apron protecting her elegant, often white, clothing, scampering from stove to sink to refrigerator as she prepared unforgettable meals. She had been an intellectual in Paris, never needing to cook until she came to the States and started missing her favorite French dishes, mostly those from her region of birth near Bordeaux.

Gigi’s mother, my Mami, had cooked good, simple meals, excelling at the puddings, pots de crème and tarts she so loved. Mami only liked sweets, taking tiny bites of meat or fish and teensy sips of soup to placate her husband. Toward the end, when she was in a nursing home, she refused to eat anything but desserts, and the Catholic Sisters were kind enough to oblige her.

But my mother’s grandmother had been a stellar cook, turning out sauces and stews, roasts and cakes with nothing but an icebox, two gas burners, a big kitchen fireplace, and well water that had to be pumped and carried up the stairs.  Gigi had spent many hours by her Mémé’s side, assisting and absorbing, and when the time came for her to cook for her own family, she instinctively knew what to do.

As a guide, she kept her grandmother’s cookbook, published in 1929, Traité de Cuisine Bourgeoise Bordelaise by Aleide Bontou. I treasure that little green book with its brown and tattered pages. There are no pictures, and very few measurements, just general directions in paragraph form, as if any decent cook would know exactly what to do when told “faites une liaison avec jaune d’oeuf et beurre.”  Translation: bind (or thicken) with egg yolks and butter, a tricky culinary maneuver, which , if done incorrectly, results in a curdled mess.

Here and there, I find my mother’s underlining in pencil, or a recipe slipped between the pages, and I feel as if she is in the kitchen with me. I also have many of her index cards with favorite recipes copied in her loopy script, recipes that made her reputation as the best (and prettiest) hostess in Denver, with a magical je ne sais quoi in the kitchen. I remember her laughing when she told me that her friends always asked why her coffee was so much better than theirs. She maintained she had no idea, but she did: she put real cream in every cup, not skim milk or some awful artificial whitener.

In Gigi’s mind, there was nothing wrong with cream or butter. She believed that many Americans were fat because they ate too much and the food they ate was artificial and tasteless. At the height of its popularity, margarine never crossed our threshold, nor did sugary cereals or peanut butter or ketchup.

Gigi thought the best breakfast for children was a thick piece of French bread slathered in butter and topped with a mountain of grated dark chocolate. In my goody-goody phase, I used to be appalled knowing my children were eating this at her house every morning (and probably every afternoon too!), but it was the same little decadence my grandmother had prepared for me when I lived in France as a child. I had loved it, and now they did too.

Sometimes Gigi would make her grandchildren macaroni and cheese with so much Gruyère that they could pull a strand of it up with their teeth, vying to see whose would break first. The winner would usually be standing up on his or her chair, while my mother laughed and my father scowled.

She also made their favorite stew, which she called Sauce au Vin (Wine Sauce), a variation of Boeuf Bourguignon. She never measured, but it’s an easy recipe. Take good stew meat, which you have asked the butcher, ever so sweetly, to cut into medium-sized cubes, toss them in flour and brown them in oil, with a little butter thrown in just because. Put the browned meat aside and sauté a lot of sliced onions in the same pot. Add a bouquet garni of bay leaves, thyme and parsley, then pour in a whole bottle of decent wine, preferably a Cabernet or Merlot or Bordeaux. (Gigi shunned cheap wines, believing they resulted in lousy stews and sauces. She would not, under any circumstances, have used Two Buck Chuck!) After the sauce has reduced a bit, put the meat back in the pot and cook the stew at very low temperature for about four hours. Check periodically and pour in more wine if necessary. Add sautéed mushrooms at the end, if desired, and serve over buttered egg noodles.

Gigi loved mushrooms, especially cèpes, which we know as porcini, and chanterelles. She had hunted wild mushrooms with her father as a child and was bewildered to discover that Americans didn’t know what they were. Surely they were somewhere to be found in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Later, when mushroom-hunting became popular and friends would bring them to her, she would cut them into smallish pieces and sauté them in olive oil with garlic and parsley, then serve them, sometimes as garnish, sometimes in velvety sauces, and sometimes as a filling for an omelet, eaten at lunch or dinner, never at breakfast.

Every year since Gigi died, I try to make something she loved on her birthday. In her last days, her one true love was still oysters on the half-shell. When we were kids in New Jersey, after dragging us around New York City, she would have to stop at the Oyster Bar in the Port Authority Bus Terminal and order a dozen oysters and a glass of white wine. She taught us to put only lemon juice on the oysters, and to make sure they hadn’t been washed, since that removed the taste of the sea. Before I learned to like oysters, I would watch in horror as she poked each one with a little fork to make sure it was still fresh and alive before she swallowed it.

I can’t shuck oysters no matter how hard I try. Unless my brother is with me, that dish is out of the question. But Gigi also loved scallops, and made a great Coquilles Saint-Jacques, with butter, shallots, white wine, mushrooms and a touch of cream. I think I’ll make that tonight and savor it as I drink to my beautiful mother’s memory.

Before I go shopping, though, I hear her voice in my head with another Frenchwoman’s commandment: Thou shalt never go out looking sloppy or badly dressed. It’s bad for you and even worse for those who have to look at you.

So, out of respect and the deepest love for Gigi, I am going to change out of my sweatpants, put on some lipstick, and head for the market, where I will smile and flirt with the fishmonger, just as my mother would have. Then I will make the scallops and a plain butter lettuce salad, the way she liked it, followed by a simple dessert of raspberries and Chambord with vanilla ice-cream. Before sitting down, I will toast her spirit with a fine Bordeaux while I thank her in silent prayer for being the best mother and grandmother anyone could wish for.

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